George Chakiris as Bernardo Nuñez in West Side Story
Best Supporting Actor at the 34th Annual Oscars (1961)
“Back home, women know their place.”
The world of West Side Story is generally awful, but I’d love it if gang violence consisted mainly of men finger snapping at one another.
Unlike a character that we just encountered, Bernardo does NOT want to live in America. In Puerto Rico, he was top dog, but since he moved to the mainland, he can’t get a job, and no one likes him. He’s resentful of having to start over, and of having to watch out for his sister, who doesn’t have the same view of the place that he does. Neither his parents nor his girlfriend understand what he’s going through, and that makes things even worse. He’s got the struggles of anyone who has ever watched a world that they knew change around them.
But Bernardo’s relationship with America is deeply intertwined with his relationship with masculinity. One of his major beefs with the country is that the women have more power than he wants. He tries to parent Maria, policing her behavior and controlling who she can and can’t see. But she doesn’t listen to him, and neither does his girlfriend Anita, who seems to be more and more dismissive of his concerns. And to make matters worse, the Jets are constantly jeering at him, and his pride is wounded at every turn. He’s a macho guy, and he’s not able to work or strut like he wants, so he lashes out, and ends up dead. And that’s why we need to teach boys to express emotions in healthy ways!
It’s hard to have a lot to say about this performance: ultimately, George Chakiris is in brownface, doing a fake accent, and that’s too tough for me to get past. I can’t help but think of how this movie, one specifically about race, could have been a chance to bring a Latino actor to prominence. Rita Moreno got opportunities because of her role here, and it’s hard not to see the lost potential in Bernardo. If I have to say something positive, it’s that Chakiris does manage to bring a sexy danger to his character: in a very goofy movie, he’s the person who most seems like he could actually be in a gang. But ultimately, the casting is so off that I can’t appreciate it.
In Rita Moreno’s entry, I listed the many great things about West Side Story. But it’s not all roses. As alluded to above, this film’s relationship with race is fraught. First of all, Bernardo is not the only Puerto Rican character played by a white person. It sucks because it’s a movie all about these differences between people, but it’s just a metaphor: there’s no actual understanding of how racism operates. For instance, the whole Jets versus Sharks beef is ultimately portrayed as two equal sides that hate one another, as if one of those groups doesn’t have way more social power than the other. Much less seriously, Tony and Maria are such drips. I understand why they don’t have much personality, but their desperate love out of nowhere is like, what? Him? Her??
Was the Oscar deserved?
No, it was bad casting from the jump.